After listening to me complain for years about my constantly stuffy nose, food cravings, allergies, and frequent, er, “stomach problems,” a doctor friend of mine threw out something I’d never heard of: “I think you might have leaky gut syndrome,” she said.
My first reaction was, “What a bunch of nonsense. How can guts leak?” That was immediately followed by, “Am I going to have to start using those adult diapers? I mean, if I’m truly leaking, where else could it go?” Turns out, guts actually can leak. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there’s no need to buy Depends—the leakage stays safely inside the body.
Actually, that’s only partly good news. The leakage in leaky gut syndrome (more technically called “increased intestinal permeability”) may be responsible for a huge variety of health issues, ranging from minor things like bloating, cramps, fatigue, food allergies and sensitivities, gas, and headaches to bigger things like autism, autoimmune conditions, depression and other mood disorders, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and multiple sclerosis.
Let’s take a minute to talk about what, exactly, a leaky gut is. Close your eyes and imagine that your digestive tract is like a very crowded zoo where all the animals—in this case about 100 trillion microbes divided into anywhere from 300 to 1000 different species—are free to roam. As in any zoo, some of these microbes are good, others not so much. (Can’t you just hear Madonna singing, “We are living in a microbial world and I am a microbial girl”?)
The lining of your intestines is essentially a fence with microscopic holes in it that allows vitamins, minerals, and nutrients from your food out into the bloodstream while at the same time trying to keep the bad bacteria, pieces of undigested food, and other toxic gunk (yes, that’s exactly what you think it is) from getting out.
When the microbial balance in your gut is right, your whole body functions the way it’s supposed to. But when that balance gets out of whack—say because of chronic stress, chronic constipation, exposure to environmental toxins like pesticides, eating a poor diet, or taking an antibiotic that wipes out a lot those microbes—the “bad” bacteria cut holes in the fence and some of them, along with food particles and toxins, leak into the bloodstream.
When your immune system sees organisms where they don’t belong, it attacks, causing irritation and inflammation. In my case, the result was allergies, gas, and more. For other people, it’s a lot worse.
Because leaky gut has so many possible causes–and so many possibly symptoms–the medical community isn’t quite sure how to deal with it. Many people aren’t even sure that it’s right to call it a syndrome. But those who do—typically doctors who specialize in what’s called “functional medicine”—know exactly what to do: get those gut microbes back into balance. And they typically suggest a multi-step program, such as:
- Remove foods and factors that create problems. In my case, my doctor friend took me off of gluten, sugar, and dairy.
- Replace those foods with ones that are less likely to irritate your gut. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, and even pickles, are considered healing foods.
- Repair the damage with supplements. Recommendations include L-glutamine (an amino acid that can heal the intestinal lining), vitamin D, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids (such as fish oil).
- Repopulate your good gut bacteria. One way to do this is to take probiotics (millions of live, beneficial bacteria). Get recommendations from your doctor. The internet—and health food stores—are full of probiotics that promise you the world, but since they aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there’s no way to verify those claims, accurately identify the exact strains of bacteria that are included, or even ensure their potency. Another way to rebalance your gut is to get a transplant from another person whose gut is already well balanced. This increasingly popular—and very successful—technique is called bacteriotherapy, which is a euphemism for fecal microbial transplant (FMT) or stool transplant. Yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like.
So far, I’ve gotten only as far as removing certain offending foods and eating more pickles and sauerkraut. The results have been nothing short of amazing. After just a few gluten-, sugar-, and dairy-free days, I was able to stop blowing my nose and clearing my phlegmy throat all the time, and my food cravings completely disappeared. I have breakfast at 6 a.m. and I’m not hungry at all until mid-afternoon.
One of the biggest leaky gut red flags is having issues with a variety of foods. But beyond that, if you have any annoying symptoms that haven’t responded to conventional treatment, talk with your healthcare provider about whether you might have leaky gut syndrome. Do not, however, try to treat it yourself.